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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 September 2018

Yair Netanyahu: Immature youth or Israeli PM's mouthpiece?

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu's 26-year-old son is becoming known in Israel because of his vitriolic social media posts. And now his father has suggested that he may be interested in becoming a politician

This photo from March 18, 2015 shows Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and his son Yair visiting the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. Thomas Coex / AFP
This photo from March 18, 2015 shows Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and his son Yair visiting the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. Thomas Coex / AFP

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu asserted in an recent interview that he discourages his children from going into politics because it's a "tough life." But, he said, "it may not help".

The right-winger, who has dominated Israeli political life for most of the last decade but is now embattled in the face of alleged corruption scandal, told Fox News on Sunday that "maybe one" of his children is interested in becoming a politician — then added: "But I hope not."

He was referring to his son, Yair, 26, who is becoming known in Israel because of his vitriolic social media posts directed against the Israeli left, the media and those he perceives to be enemies of his father. Last month he shocked many Israelis by posting a cartoon that was a locally-adapted version of a meme popular among anti-Semites abroad. Left-wing Israelis, joined by some rightist commentators and American Jewish leaders voiced outrage that the son of the premier of the country that aspires to be the Jewish state would traffic in anti-Semitic imagery.

Yair's other salvoes include: falsely alleging that the son of a former premier, Ehud Olmert, had a homosexual relationship with a Palestinian that jeopardised national security, and asserting after the violence at the far-right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia that neo-Nazis are not a threat to Jews.

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In fact, the more Yair posts (under the name Yair Hun) the more compelling becomes the question: are these the outbursts of an immature youth and should they be taken seriously? Or is he, as some analysts assert, the real, uncensored face of today's Israeli right and a kind of mouthpiece for his father, faithfully voicing the premier's views in raw, unvarnished form?

The fact that the elder Netanyahu has neither reined in his son nor distanced himself from his social media posts reinforces the latter suspicion. "I can't think of anything Yair has said that runs counter to what Netanyahu has said. He just says it in a more vicious way. And Netanyahu is plenty vicious on his own," says left-wing writer Larry Derfner, author of the recently published book No Country for Jewish Liberals.

Some analysts suggest that despite his disclaimers, Benjamin Netanyahu hopes to groom his son for a career in politics. In May, Yair's profile was raised when he was the only other guest at a dinner his parents hosted for Melania and Donald Trump. But increased exposure has done him few favours.

In July, in an article titled, "The child of all of us" a left-wing publication named 61 depicted Yair as a parasitic spoiled brat and right-wing extremist. He studied international relations at the Hebrew University and did his military service in the army press office but — according to the article — has no job currently and exercises increasing influence over his father in media matters. Unlike the adult children of other prime ministers, Yair lives with his parents in the official residence, with taxpayers footing the bill for his driver and security detail. The 61 article reported how the Wallenberg nightclub in Jerusalem got advance notice of Yair's late night arrival so that his armed bodyguard could gain entrance. "How much does this cost us exactly?" 61 asked.

Stung, Yair shot back on Facebook. saying the report was full of lies and wondered why no investigation was carried out into Mr Olmert's son, Ariel, "whose interesting relationship with a Palestinian man had significance for state security."

The caricature post last month earned Yair the praise of neo-Nazis and leading anti-Semites such as former Ku Klux Klan leader, David Duke. The aim appeared to be to depict the police investigations against his parents for alleged corruption as a conspiracy of dark forces.

But the cartoon, captioned the Food Chain, though adapted from an image repeatedly posted on racist message boards in recent years, had distinct elements extrapolated from the ideas and statements of Netanyahu the father. It featured American Jewish billionaire philanthropist George Soros, who finances liberal organisations, including those critical of Israeli occupation practices, dangling a globe. In July, the Israeli foreign ministry, which Mr Netanyahu also presides over in the absence of a foreign minister, attacked Soros, saying he "continuously undermines Israel's democratically elected governments" and funds groups "that defame the Jewish state and seek to deny it the right to defend itself."

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The cartoon also includes a huge reptile and a sinister figure with a hooked nose. There is also a likeness of former premier and sharp Netanyahu critic Ehud Barak and images of Meni Naftali and Eldad Yaniv. Mr Naftali is a former housekeeper for the Netanyahus who successfully sued Yair's mother for mistreatment and wrongful dismissal, in the process revealing embarrassing details of her abusive behaviour. He and Mr Yaniv have led protests against the prime minister and attorney general over the latter's failure thus far to issue corruption indictments. In August, they were arrested and held overnight after calling on the public to join the demonstrations. Netanyahu senior has referred to the two as anarchists and criminals.

Yair Netanyahu posted the cartoon a day after attorney-general Avichai Mandelblit announced he intended to indict Sara Netanyahu for fraud over alleged misuse of public funds, pending a hearing with her. The cartoon was removed two days after it was posted amid the uproar but Yair has not apologised for it.

The prime minister himself faces possible indictment for what may prove to be illegal negotiations with a newspaper editor, Noni Mozes, allegedly to sway coverage in his favour, and accepting illicit gifts from billionaire businessmen. His former staffers are being investigated for alleged corruption surrounding the purchase of German submarines for 2 billion dollars.

Prime minister Netanyahu denies wrongdoing and has blamed his troubles on "leftists" seeking to replace the government through false accusations after failing to do so at the ballot box. On July 13, Yair shared his father's post that carried the title "fake news" and bore the logos of many Israeli news organisations: Ynet, Channel Two, Channel Ten, Haaretz, and others.

Haaretz is the leading critical voice against both his father and the occupation. The younger Netanyahu says it is "anti-Semitic" and lcalls the media as a whole "Bolshevik." In Yair's view, the New York-based New Israel Fund, which sponsors leftist groups in Israel and which Yair blamed for the unflattering article in 61, is the "Fund for the Destruction of Israel."

The father-son relationship is perhaps best summed up by Yair's post on Father's Day in June 18, in which he called his father "the smartest person I know, my role model and one of the greatest leaders in Jewish history."

Like his father, Yair believes all of the biblical Land of Israel belongs to the Jews exclusively. An August 1 post read: "They're called 'Jews' because they come from 'Judea'. They're called 'Arabs' because they came from 'Arabia'. So tell me again who is occupying whose land?"

The controversial caricature followed an August post that, to the dismay of some American Jews backed up Donald Trump's controversial response to the deadly violence at an extreme-right march in Charlottesville, Virginia. While Trump put the right-wing extremists and the anti-fascist protesters on an equal footing, Yair went beyond that, declaring the left-wing counterprotesters were the more dangerous because they "hate my country" and are "becoming super dominant" in American public life while the neo-Nazi "scum" belong to the past and "are dying out."

Rabbi Jill Jacobs, director of the New York-based liberal Jewish organisation T'ruah: Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, took strong exception to Yair's comments.

"Anti-Semitism is always rooted in the belief in a Jewish conspiracy pulling the levers of power," she told The National. "On the far right, this manifests as the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville chanting 'Jews will not replace us.' On the far left, this manifests as a belief that Israel, or Zionists, have outsize control over the world. We have an obligation to oppose these canards wherever they appear. It is clear that neo-Nazis are not dying out — in fact, as a result of the Trump presidency, they feel newly emboldened to march through a state university, deface Jewish property, and harass prominent Jews online and off.

As for his criticism of the left, the rabbi added, "Yair Netanyahu fails to distinguish between actual anti-Semitism, and simple criticism of Israel, which like any other country must be held responsible for its human rights record."

However, David Laxer, a Tel Aviv-based entrepreneur, who defines himself as a right winger, agrees with Yair's Charlottesville post and says Yair is touching upon a growing divergence between Israel and American Jews that will only widen in future years.

"In Israel we don't fear anti-Semitism, only anti-Zionist or anti-Israel actions or Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions. That's more of a tangible threat than people in white sheets marching in some hick area," Mr Laxer said. "Just to say what Yair said is not the end of the world. I think we've lost tolerance to hearing an opinion which is unconventional because he's the son of the prime minister."

Referring to the controversial caricature, he said: "He's entitled to the opinion that George Soros is a major threat to Israel. And you can attack Soros without being an anti-Semite."

Mr Derfner, the left-wing pundit, says it would be a mistake to view Yair as an extremist or aberration. "Yair is completely in line with the mainstream Israeli right wing which is Likud, the Jewish Home Party and the Yisrael Beiteinu party" — all of which are components of the coalition. "Their politics are anti-Arab, anti-left, anti-dissent, anti-supreme court, anti-African refugees and pro-militarism. The only difference is that he expresses himself more crudely than his father and most other ministers."

Uri Dromi, who was spokesman for the late prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, suggests that Yair's posts shed light on his father's thinking: "The fact that the prime minister didn't immediately denounce the cartoon is telling because it is so outrageous. He has systematically lowered the standard of what is right and wrong, what is done and what isn't done. Netanyahu junior is expressing in the open what perhaps Netanyahu senior has in the back of his mind but is reluctant to say because he's afraid of what leaders in the western world will say."

Yair Netanyahu did not respond to questions from The National for this article.

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